“Now boarding group A for flight 2394 to Chicago …” came the overhead announcement as Alistair returned to the gate. He let out an exhausted sigh. In the bathroom, he’d splashed enough water on his face to mostly cover up the fact that he’d spent the past fifteen minutes in there crying. Because they were boarding his flight now and he was an adult, damn it, headed home, even though he’d rather —
The empty cavern in his chest gaped wide, and he had to take several deep breaths to calm himself before the sting in his eyes grew even more embarrassing. Again.
This past week had been the most amazing of his whole life, and he’d gone and blown it last night with his stupid, idiotic, romantic confession.
When he’d met Cullen online six months ago in a group for fans of his favorite video game, he had no idea the stranger who came to his defense in an internet argument would turn out to be a kindred spirit. A confidant. A friend. Someone he would grow to truly care about.
They turned out to have a lot in common — both men who had suffered greatly at the hands of the Chantry growing up, due to their sexuality. Alistair had been raised in one of their children’s homes, constantly preached to about the sinfulness of men loving men, and so had repressed and isolated himself from anyone he might grow to care for (and vice versa). Cullen’s family had been and was still kind and loving, but he’d joined the military and tried to “religion” his way out of being gay until he ended up self-medicating with various opioids and nearly died from an overdose. The game they loved had saved them both — helping Alistair to accept himself and make friends through the online community and giving Cullen something goal-oriented to focus on during his recovery.
They’d shared all of this with each other over the past several months, and when the game’s annual convention came to Cullen’s city, he’d invited Alistair out so they could officially meet and attend together.
Alistair had never taken a vacation for something so frivolous, much less had someone to enjoy it with, and the week had exceeded his wildest expectations. After their initial awkwardness — which Alistair had read was standard for people whose relationships had developed from afar — the strange person in front him soon synced with the good friend he knew virtually, and he quickly forgot they’d only just met in real life this week. The convention was a blast, and the long conversations over the meals they enjoyed in their spare time filled Alistair’s heart and soul more than he’d ever thought possible.
And, of course, they played their game. That, too, was awkward at first, but eventually they’d found their rhythm.
“What are you doing?” he’d asked Cullen, having finally gotten used to the controller and found his bearings in the world of the game. Cullen had begun to follow him around like a little duckling.
“I’m following you,” Cullen said simply.
“Because you’re good at this part. Put me in front of a dragon or ogre, I can kick serious ass, but I’m shit at deciding which quests to do in what order. So, lead the way.”
Alistair shoved his controller away and shook his head vehemently. “Me? Lead? No, no, no. Bad things happen when I lead. My groups get lost, people die, I get stranded somewhere without any pants …”
Cullen laughed, and it was deeper and richer than Alistair had imagined from the comparatively soulless hahahas in their online chats. “See? That sounds way more exciting than wandering around aimlessly for hours.” He handed Alistair back his controller. “Go on. I’ll follow you anywhere.”
The utter trust in his voice still made Alistair grin like an idiot.
He should have known it was too good to be true.
Because Alistair had realized over the course of the week that he cared about Cullen more than anyone else in his life. At some point during the past six months, he’d fallen head over heels in love.
Until they'd met, Alistair would never have even considered describing what he had with Cullen as love. But in person, it was hard to ignore the way his heart beat faster, his stomach fluttered, and he smiled more when talking with Cullen. He could have succeeded, though, if not for the touching.
Over the week, they’d grown more and more physically affectionate — first a handshake, then hugs, then casual bumps or leans. Back at Cullen’s place for dinner, they played their game together or watched a movie, even occasionally feeding each other bites of food. Cullen wasn’t shy about sharing a blanket, and a few times they even fell asleep against one another, complete with mild snuggling. Alistair had never realized before just how touch-starved he truly was.
Even with all that, he might have been okay. But two nights ago, Cullen casually picked something out of Alistair’s hair and then ran his fingers through it to get it to lay flat. Alistair shivered, his pulse skyrocketed, and in that moment, he wanted nothing more than to kiss Cullen.
And last night, he’d been stupid enough to confess everything.
He’d reasoned that he wanted to have that conversation with Cullen in person, not over chat — especially if an opportunity for something physical presented itself.
And he really, really wanted to kiss Cullen.
But Cullen’s reaction could only have been worse if he’d kicked Alistair out on the street.
Okay, that was a bit dramatic, but only just. Cullen had backed, stepped, crossed away to the other side of the room, hands up in a defensive gesture, as though Alistair were attacking him, hurting him, when in fact that was the last thing Alistair ever wanted to do.
And then the words came, each one slicing through Alistair’s tender heart, shredding it to pieces. “Alistair, I — I care about you, I do, but — I just — I don’t know if I feel — if we —”
Cullen never finished a full thought, but he didn’t need to. If the answer wasn’t the obvious, that was the answer, wasn’t it? The air grew tense and fraught, as unnatural as the first few minutes after they’d met, until Cullen made his excuses to go to bed early.
Between crying silently into his pillow and staring forlornly at the ceiling, Alistair hadn’t slept a wink. Then this morning, Cullen made them both coffee and initiated the most awkward conversation of Alistair’s life.
Cullen liked being friends with Alistair. Cared about him. But he didn’t think his feelings were more than that, and even if they had leaned in that direction, he wouldn’t want to ruin what they had, especially if it might impact his recovery. And of course, coward that he was, Alistair explained that he would never want to cause Cullen pain or hurt their friendship, and that he wasn’t even sure his feelings weren’t just overexcitement from the con and having finally met in person.
That last part was a lie, of course; he wouldn’t, he couldn’t risk losing Cullen over an ill-advised confession of love. But he knew enough to know what he wanted, and what he wanted was Cullen Rutherford.
An hour ago, Cullen had dropped him off at the airport; they’d hugged and said their uncomfortable goodbyes, and Alistair hated that everything seemed to have changed. Cullen asked him to text when he arrived home, and he promised he would. For now, though, for his own sanity, his phone was off; the last thing he needed was to obsess over past messages or to constantly check to see if Cullen had texted him. He was even considering blocking Cullen’s number temporarily so he could have a little break while he nursed his broken heart and grieved the loss of what might have been.
And anyway, while Cullen might have been the closest, he wasn’t Alistair’s only friend. There were several waiting back home for him to return; he’d be sure to get his fill of them as much as possible in the next month or so.
Home. He’d sleep so much better once he was in his own bed.
“Now boarding group B for flight 2394 to Chicago …”
That was his group. Alistair gathered his bag and waited in line less than patiently, both dreading and wanting to get home.
In his distracted state, he didn’t register the commotion behind him for a few moments, but he heard someone yelling, and it sounded urgent. He turned, prepared to help if needed — not that he was particularly qualified to assist other than company-mandated CPR training — but then the voice came into focus.
That voice was one he’d never forget, despite having only heard it for the first time this week. And it was calling his name.
The crowd, most of them loitering around for their boarding group to be called in spite of specific instructions to stay seated, parted and Cullen stumbled forward, desperately searching the crowd until his eyes settled on Alistair.
His face lit up, and Cullen rushed toward him. “Alistair!”
“Cullen?” Alistair shook his head in disbelief. “What — is everything okay?”
“Don’t get on the plane.”
Alistair’s stomach did some complicated gymnastics. No, this couldn’t be. He didn’t dare hope.
He swallowed, then croaked, “W-why not?”
Cullen ran his hand through his hair, mussing up the unruly blond curls he always tried to tame but Alistair secretly loved. “I got all the way to the highway and realized … I — I tried to call you so many times, but I got your voicemail, so I had to come back. I didn’t want — I couldn’t leave it like this. I couldn’t let you leave without telling you.”
“Telling me wh —”
Cullen reached up to where Alistair held his duffle slung over his shoulder and took the bag, dropping it. Then he slid his hand down Alistair’s arm until he clutched both of Alistair’s hands (one of which still held his boarding pass) in both of his.
“I know I said I wanted to stay friends, but that’s not true. I can’t do this anymore.”
Alistair sucked in a sharp breath, eyes burning. No, not like this. Why would Cullen do it in public? It could have waited, he couldn’t even take this in private, much less in front of a crowd full of strangers.
Alistair tried to lead him off to the side, away from the attention. “Please, don’t …”
But Cullen placed a hand on Alistair’s cheek and said, “I need you, Alistair.”
Alistair’s heart stopped. He tried to say “What?” but no sound came out.
“I’ve never met anyone like you,” Cullen said. “You’re smart and kind and caring and so damned sweet it makes me sick sometimes. You’re everything I’m not — funny and optimistic and loud and unapologetically you. I’ve told you things I’ve never told a single soul, and you have never once made me feel anything less than the most important person in the world. I don’t know how it’s possible that a random person I met on the internet could understand me so completely, but you do. And Maker’s breath, I need you so much.”
Cullen brought his other hand up to cradle Alistair’s face, but it wasn’t necessary; Alistair couldn’t move if he tried.
“I need you more than I’ve ever needed anything in my life. You fill an emptiness inside me that I’d assumed would always be there until I met you, and when I left you on the sidewalk and drove away, that emptiness came back and grew bigger and bigger the farther I drove. I spent this whole week trying to convince myself it was just nice to finally meet you and spend time with you in person, but the moment I said goodbye to you I felt like I was leaving a part of me behind. And that scared the shit out of me, Alistair, because the last time I needed something this much it nearly killed me.”
Vision blurring, Alistair shook his head. He wasn’t worth that. If parting ways with Cullen would keep him safe from another addiction, Alistair could survive a broken heart.
But Cullen’s thumbs caressed Alistair’s cheeks, wiping away the tears that had fallen. Alistair wanted to do the same for him, but Cullen just shook his head.
“No, it’s okay,” Cullen said, smiling. “Because I could never fill that hole before, but with you … it’s like you were made for it. Like you were made for me. And I won’t ignore that sort of sign from the Maker. Not when — not when you’re here and you want it, too. Assuming —”
And for the first time since he’d started, Cullen looked away, eyes closed. “Assuming you still want it,” he whispered.
When those beautiful amber eyes opened again, they were filled with a desperation that broke Alistair’s heart. “I never meant to hurt you. I only wanted to protect us both because I only ever seem to destroy everything good that’s ever happened to me. But I promise you, I will never, ever hurt you. I love you, Alistair, and I’m begging you — please don’t get on that plane.”
Around them, the crowd was so silent Alistair could hear every beat of his heart as if it were a timpani.
Cullen released him and turned away, but Alistair was frozen. He couldn’t move or speak or even crack a joke, and he could always crack jokes.
Why couldn’t he say something, Cullen was leaving, and he needed to —
But Cullen wasn’t leaving, only reaching for something from his pocket, and when he met Alistair’s gaze again, he was holding up a piece of paper.
“But if you do get on the plane,” he said, a slight smile curling his scarred lip, “Go on. I’ll follow you anywhere.”
The paper was a boarding pass, which read:
Cullen S. Rutherford
Chicago, Midway (MDW) Flight 2394
Alistair looked back up at him, and Maker, Cullen’s hair and Cullen’s smile and Cullen’s eyes and Cullen’s face and Cullen’s love were so gorgeous his heart ached.
“Maker’s breath, but you’re beautiful,” Alistair whispered. “I love you, t —”
Cullen swept Alistair into his arms before he could finish, pressing their lips together into a kiss so amazing (passionate and desperate but so very tender and gentle) that Alistair almost didn’t notice the crowd burst into honest-to-Maker applause.
When they broke apart, just far enough that Alistair could see the unrestrained joy in those honey-colored eyes, he whispered, “You know, when I lead —”
“You end up somewhere without any pants?” Cullen grinned. “I think I’m okay with that.”
Alistair threw himself into Cullen’s arms and kissed him again. Cullen’s laugh was rich, deep, and happy as he picked Alistair up and swung him around, and Alistair decided that was the reason their second kiss was somehow even better than their first.
Cullen eventually released him just enough to bend and pick up Alistair’s bag and, with an arm around his waist, guided him to the side, away from the congratulatory but once-again-boarding crowd.
“Are we really going to do this?” Alistair asked.
Cullen turned to look at him sharply, frowning. “Do you — do you not want to?”
“No, that’s not what I mean!” Alistair cradled Cullen’s face as Cullen had his before, and Cullen leaned into it, eyes fluttering closed. The release of tension at his mere touch made Alistair never want to let Cullen go. He stroked his thumb across Cullen’s cheek. “I just want to make sure I’m not dreaming. It’s too …”
Cullen smiled, so sweet and precious Alistair leaned in to kiss him yet again. When they broke apart, Cullen lazily opened his eyes and said, “Perfect? That’s how I know this is real. My dreams are never this good.”
Alistair suddenly felt so giddy he began to laugh and cry at the same time, burying his face in Cullen’s shoulder. He’d only just regained control when a voice announced, “Final boarding call for flight 2394 to Chicago. Gentlemen?”
The airline employee grinned at them, eyebrows raised, waiting for an answer.
“What do you think?” Cullen asked. “Your place or mine?”
Alistair shook his head. “I don’t care, as long as you’re with me.”
So they twined their fingers and — hand in hand — headed for home.